Graeme Thomson

HAVE YOU heard the one about the writer who always wanted to be a musician, and the musician who yearned to write a book? The hefty punchline comes in the form of You Know What You Could Be, a “double-headed memoir” composed – separately but together – by the poet, novelist (and mean banjo player) Andrew Greig, and the singer and songwriter Mike Heron.

With Robin Williamson – and, briefly, the late Clive Palmer – Heron fronted the Incredible String Band, the psychedelic folk pioneers shaped by Edinburgh’s early 60s bohemian scene, who ended up wowing the Beatles and playing Woodstock.

Their warm, meditative, evocative book puts the seal on a relationship which began 50 years ago. As a 16-year-old living in the self-contained world of Fife’s East Neuk, Greig’s life was turned upside down in 1967 through chance exposure to the strange, exotic enchantments of the second Incredible String Band album, The 5000 Spirits or The Layers of the Onion.

“It came like a vision,” he recalls. “It’s worth emphasising how much it mattered to us that they were from Edinburgh. They were Scottish! We couldn’t believe this. The fact these people lived only 45 miles from us meant everything. It handed us a ‘can do’.”

The "can" part of the equation notwithstanding, Greig and his pals duly "did". In the spirit of the age, they formed a collective called Fate & Ferret. They held folk gatherings, communed in the woods, and did their best to ape the String Band’s hippie-princeling glamour. They even made "albums" – destined never to be released – on a Grundig tape player. “We tried to approximate the music and their lifestyle, attempts which were at once ludicrous and creative,” says Grieg.

“Not having first-hand knowledge isn’t a bad place to be, because you don’t get burned by being at the hot centre of it. It’s the creativity of Chinese Whispers. It forced us to be inventive.”

Most auspiciously, Fate & Ferret began sending stories, drawings, songs and poems to the Incredible String Band’s producer and manager, Joe Boyd, in London, which were passed on to the group and reproduced in their concert programmes.

“He sent us these little imaginary tales of what the band was up to,” says Heron with a giggle. “It was quite twee, but also taking the p***. I quite liked that. Even in the early days, there was a tendency to be a bit holier-than-thou, so I enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek element. It was refreshing, and became popular with the fans.” Fate & Ferret were invited into the gilded circle. Greig met his heroes several times backstage for tea and hospitality. “It was amazingly democratic and curiously trusting,” he says.

And that was that, until some 40 years later, when fate (sans ferret) threw the pair back together. By now, Greig was a successful writer, living in Edinburgh with his wife, the novelist Lesley Glaister. Heron had continued making music, dividing his time between Newcastle, Edinburgh and the Borders. When Greig was invited to play at a musical event where Heron was guesting, the pair renewed their acquaintance and quickly established a genuine friendship. They have even performed shows together, Greig adding banjo and vocals. “This was a huge thrill to me, I must say!” he says. “I couldn’t believe I was sharing a stage, playing and singing, with Mike. To me that was extraordinary.”

One night over dinner, Heron mentioned that he’d like to write something about his musical life. The question was, how to approach it?

“He didn’t want to write a whole book because he had no experience with anything longer than sleeve notes,” says Greig. “I put to my editor, quite casually, this idea for a double-headed memoir. He thought it sounded interesting.”

It is. You Know What You Could Be is much more than a conventional music biography. Heron writes the first 100 pages, covering his “staid, suburban” childhood in Edinburgh, his early forays in rock bands, and his immersion in the beatnik demi-monde of the capital’s folk hubs, the Howff and the Crown. He tangles with Anne Briggs and Bert Jansch, John Martyn and Billy Connolly, before joining Palmer and Williamson as “the apprentice” in the Incredible String band.

“It’s not really a whole book about the String Band,” he says. “In the late 50s and early 60s Edinburgh was an amazing place, and I wanted to capture that atmosphere. It was mostly really stifling and Presbyterian, but within that people managed to be innovative. Writing it was a struggle, because with songs I’m used to putting a lot of stuff into a few lines. Also, my memory is reputedly terrible, but once you get people nudging you, it all comes back.”

His section ends in 1966, shortly after the release of the first Incredible String Band album. Palmer and Williamson have vanished on the hippie trail, leaving Heron kicking his heels in Edinburgh. “I thought the mystery of whether the group had broken up after one album was a good place to stop,” he says. “There were exciting times after that, of course, but it’s about the whole thing having momentum. It was a formative time for me.”

Greig’s part of the book, far longer, is a tender memorial to the East Neuk rube whose mind – and heart – is opened by the music Heron is making. “It’s like a baton being passed on,” he says. “Mike’s story is from the centre of the psychedelic folk thing. My story is from the largely neglected fringes of fandom. Fandom gets a bad press, but it often inspires people to get up and do something. It worked for me. That Half-Remarkable Question the String Band posed – ‘What is it that we are part of? What is it that we are?’ – lit a fuse in me a very long time ago, and that outlook is in all the books I’ve written. This one is a really a big thank you, building little verbal statues of people. I did it for Norman MacCaig in At the Loch of the Green Corrie, too. I see a line of connection to that.”

Heron still performs regularly, often with his daughter and the Scottish folk group Trembling Bells. He plans to continue his story in a second memoir, while Greig is working on a prequel to Fair Helen, his last historical novel. Both will continue doing what they have spent a lifetime doing. Separate but connected.

“One thing we had in common was the desire not to have a proper job,” says Greig. “It’s bloody hard work, but a noble ambition! With this book, we both inadvertently wrote stories of formation. We didn’t discuss that, it just happened. It’s about trying to become who you need to be, when you don’t even know what that is.

"At the end, I came to feel a sense of gratitude that what we had in our lives today was a version of the life we dreamed of. The 60s was probably the only optimistic decade of the 20th century, and those values seemed to have gone very deep: the feeling that things would keep changing for the better, that joy was our natural condition.”

He gives an astonished little laugh. “Imagine that!”

You Know What You Could Be (Quercus) is published on April 6. There is a launch at Waterstones West End, Edinburgh, at 6.30pm on April 5. The Music of the Incredible String Band is celebrated at the Edinburgh International Festival in a concert curated by produced Joe Boyd at The Playhouse on August 17.